Obituary: Harry Blech

THE VIOLINIST and conductor Harry Blech was one of the best-loved figures in the British orchestral world, best known as founder of the London Mozart Players, the first British chamber orchestra to specialise in the Viennese classics. With his lively and clear-textured readings of music by Haydn and Mozart, Blech not only built up a large and loyal audience but also had considerable influence on interpretative styles.

He was born in London and started to play the violin at nine; he made such progress that two years later he was given a scholarship to study with Sarah Fennings at Trinity College of Music. In his teens, on his teacher's advice, he attended two of Otakar Sevcik's courses at Pisek in Czechoslovakia; he admitted he derived little benefit from the system which consisted of "thousands of bowing exercises that are a violinist's nightmare", but the "swimming, and patisseries were unforgettable!"

At 18, Blech went for a further two years' study with Arthur Caterall at the Royal Manchester College of Music and at the same time played in the Halle Orchestra. In 1930 he joined the first violins in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as its youngest member, and stayed for six years. In 1933 he formed the Blech String Quartet with David Martin (second violin), Frederick Riddle (viola) and Willem de Mont (cello). The ensemble became very popular at home and abroad and made many recordings for Decca; they disbanded in 1950.

During the Second World War, Blech joined the RAF and played in their band at Uxbridge. The names of some of the players read like a musicians' Who's Who: David Martin was leader, Dennis Brain, first horn, Gareth Morris, first flute with rank-and-file players, Harry Blech, Frederick Grinke and Leonard Hirsch. Once, when the CO was absent, Blech took up the baton and news must have got around that he could wield it with some authority because the pianist Myra Hess, then running her famous National Gallery concerts, asked him to do a series of "Serenades". He promptly got together a wind group (the London Wind Players) from his friends in the RAF band; the concerts were sellouts. He told me: "Even conductors wrote to me saying what a pleasure it was to hear a wind group play so beautifully in tune. In those days there were no wind bands at all."

Towards the end of the war Blech was approached by the London Philharmonic Orchestra asking if he was interested in a post as associate conductor. He was thrilled at the prospect but had done so little conducting that he thought he ought first to gain some experience. He admitted that from childhood he had "an itch to conduct" but never dreamt it would happen. So in 1946 he formed the London Symphonic Players. He was amazed at the response; it attracted students from all the colleges and some good amateurs, and their first concert at the Kingsway Hall drew a capacity audience.

Then a pianist friend who was tired of giving endless recitals suggested that they give another concert when she would play two Mozart concertos; moreover, she would find a backer for the event. So, with Max Salpeter as leader, Blech booked the Wigmore Hall and it was packed. Soon pianists and other soloists were clamouring to play Mozart concertos; the pianists Denis Matthews, Nina Milkina and Franz Osborn took part and Dennis Brain did all the Mozart horn concertos. Their popularity was such that on occasion they had to repeat the same programme on another night.

These were the days when there was a tax on tickets for any commercial venture, so the group found financial backing and formed themselves into a charity. As the London Mozart Players they gave their first concert at the Wigmore Hall on 11 February 1949 with an all-Mozart programme. They were so successful that in 1951 Blech was approached by the organisers of the South Bank building project, asking if he would like to come in at the start and reserve some concert dates. Blech told me:

I thought they were talking about engagements, but they were really offering me dates with a guarantee against loss. I didn't think it was worthwhile and was just about to leave when they asked if we would like to take part in the opening week when Toscanini would be conducting. I pretended not to be too excited but, of course, I jumped at the idea. So we played in that opening week and it was a very exciting experience.

In fact Toscanini never came. There had been grumbling about foreign conductors after the war, so in the end Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the first ever concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

The London Mozart Players became one of Britain's most popular chamber orchestras - and the only one with a wind section befitting the classical repertory. They attracted some of the top musicians of the day, such as the great bassoonist Archie Camden whom Blech had known when both were in the Halle.

In 1984, Blech retired from his orchestra, handing over to Jane Glover. He looked back over 35 years of "wonderful" musical life with it:

We've done all the Mozart symphonies and concertos, all the Haydns, Schuberts and Beethovens. In my quartet-playing days I did all the Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and Haydn literature. I'm now coming up to my 75th year, and although I've always had good administrators, the pressures are still tremendous. I started at 10 and I've never stopped. I shall miss it all, especially as the minute I get on to the platform I feel that age has no meaning.

The London Mozart Players celebrated Harry Blech's 80th birthday in 1990 at the Barbican. He took up the baton for the last time in a concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon in 1992 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the halls. In February this year they celebrated their 50th anniversary with a gala concert at the Royal Festival Hall, where Blech held the record for number of concerts conducted - almost 350.

Harry Blech was a popular figure in the profession, known for his good- humour and, above all, his encouragement to young soloists, many of whom had their first important engagement with his orchestra. His life was dedicated to music. He once said, "I think music has the power to explain why we're here - it's as profound as that. Everything else seems trivial by comparison."

Harry Blech, violinist and conductor: born London 2 March 1910; OBE 1962, CBE 1984; married 1935 Enid Lessing (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1957), 1957 Marion Manley (one son, three daughters); died London 6 May 1999.

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